Stormy seas, dry wine
Situated near the Minas Basin on north coast of Nova Scotia, the soil at Lightfoot & Wolfville vineyard lends a rich minerality and depth of flavour to the wines
Even in a place known for beautiful, stormy seas, the Minas Basin on the eastern part of the Bay of Fundy stands out. The highest tide ever recorded took place here, and the ferocious currents include the Dory Rips, three unstoppable rip tides slamming into each other with abandon like nowhere else in the world.
On a clear day, it's possible to see the rust-coloured water of the silty basin from the windows at the Lightfoot & Wolfville vineyard, less than a kilometre south. As at any good winery, terroir is everything, and owner Mike Lightfoot can't say enough about why he loves to grow grapes on this bit of land on the north coast of Nova Scotia.
There's the Minas itself, with tides that mitigate the sometimes frigid temperatures that are the bane of this cool, wet upstart of a coastal wine region. There's the soil, which lends wonderful minerality to the wines, although it is full of massive shale rocks that require heavy-duty air drills to pierce.
"The first few years, it's terrible," Lightfoot says. But as wine lore goes, difficult soil makes a delicious drink, and he believes that the need for his vines to push their roots through layers of rock to reach water lends them a hardy drought-resistance and gives his wines an important depth of flavour. "We allow the vines to struggle with disease and after a while, they provide their own immunity."
And there's the history, not just of his own family, which has lived here on and off for four generations, but of the Acadians and British Loyalists, whose artifacts have been found on the property. To open the vineyard, the winemakers invited a local Mi'kmaq shaman to perform what Lightfoot calls "a reconciliation ceremony."
"There has been turmoil on these lands over the years, contention over the land, and we want to balance some of that energy," says Lightfoot, whose wife and co-owner, Jocelyn, grew up nearby and is part Indigenous.
After some time spent growing grapes for other wineries, Lightfoot & Wolfville began producing its own wine five years ago.
It's only been possible to visit, though, since early August. As with any new build, the tasting room and event space that Mike and his wife Jocelyn imagined years ago took longer than expected to materialize, but the space that has finally come to fruition is impressive.The main building is an 18,000-square-foot barn-like structure, with a soaring ceiling and central staircase in the main entrance hall, perfect for a grand entrance by a newly married couple. There's also a large tasting room, for quick visits, and smaller rooms in which to sit and really get to know the wines. The massive basement cellar makes the most of rough-hewn, honey-coloured salvaged wood, and offers a casually classy vibe well-suited to fancy feasts bolstered by the company's fresh, lightly filtered wines.
Those are lovely, and include a dry, medium-weight 2015 rose with a saline tang, and the 2013 Ancienne Chardonnay, which has an oaky backbone lifted by natural-ferment funk. The second is particularly impressive, since that European grape is particularly tricky to grow in Eastern Canada.
That's why Lightfoot, and every other local vineyard owner, also grow hybrid grapes, particularly the aptly named L'Acadie blanc. Developed in the mid-20th century to withstand brutal winters, it's the province's signature grape and a mainstay of Nova Scotia's first appellation wine, Tidal Bay.
Premiered six years years ago, Tidal Bay is a zippy, slightly sweet blend suited to seafood, and one of the earliest signs that winemakers here are serious about building a new industry. "We're proud to be bringing people back to the East," says Lightfoot, noting that his vineyard provides 40 jobs.
For local winemakers, Tidal Bay is a complete package: a friendly competition that builds community among members of a nascent industry and a reason for bars and restaurants to hold annual taste tests that draw out local wine lovers.
It's also an easy-drinking, wallet-friendly opportunity for visitors to dip into a Nova Scotia bottle, which is important, since those tough winters result in low yields and high price-points. Whether from early pioneers such as Domaine de Grand Pré or newcomers such as Benjamin Bridge (whose head winemaker left California for Nova Scotia), Tidal Bay offerings straddle the $20 mark. It's an important gateway into a relatively unknown scene where bottlings made entirely from fussy European grapes can go for $50 or more.
"You plant your vineyard like you're investing your money, and L'Acadie is blue chip," says Lightfoot about his mix of approachable and more challenging wines. "But I wanted to push a little harder." That's why he grows chardonnay, and even pinot noir, even though red grapes are notoriously hard to nurture here.
During nice weather, visitors can enjoy stone-oven pizza on the patio while gazing out at the grapes as they grow on 60 acres of vines marching gracefully down the green slopes toward the basin. These are cared for biodynamically, which to Lightfoot means "the whole farm is valuable to what we're doing." He says his grandmother never used chemical sprays when she was growing apples here in the 1960s and that his main team – which includes Jocelyn, daughters Rachel and Kori and winemaker Josh Horton – began transitioning the farm to organics and biodynamics as soon as they started the vineyard.
"Trees were dying during conventional farming," he says of the land he returned to. "The snakes and grasshoppers were gone." Now those critters are back, and considered essential to the vineyard's ecosystem, as are the sheep and cows that graze closer by. Lightfoot is seeking a head chef to produce daily farm-to-fork tasting menus, including charcuterie made from pigs that eat leftover grape skins when they aren't foraging in the woods at the bottom of the hill.
Certified biodynamic by Demeter, Lightfoot & Wolfville is unabashedly eccentric: certain tasks are performed on certain days as determined by an astrological calendar and non-chemical treatments for crops are stirred by hand. This includes horsetail tea, used to stave off powdery mildew, the type of pesticide-free approach that gives Lightfoot peace of mind when he and his staff are wandering around idly plucking grapes off the vines and drinking water from the well.
What's most important, of course, is the resulting wine. "What you're tasting from the fruit and from the vine is what nature intended," Lightfoot says. According to the ocean nearby, that means something wild and unpredictable but easy to fall in love with.
If you can only make it to Halifax
Wolfville, in the Annapolis Valley, is where many of Nova Scotia's wineries are located, including Lightfoot & Wolfville. It's only about an hour's drive north of Halifax, but even a quick city visit offers opportunities to taste local wines and/or pick up a few bottles to take home.
Ontario visitors will be heartbroken after a visit to this cute little wine shop near the Seaport Farmers' Market, which offers a wide range of quirky international selections far superior to most LCBOs, not to mention better hours. There is a hundred-strong selection of Nova Scotia's bottles, from respected vineyards such as Avondale Sky, Benjamin Bridge and Blomidon as well as local craft brews.
1477 Lower Water Street, 902-490-2675, bishopscellar.com
This moody downtown restaurant has a raw bar stocked with enticing oysters, crab and the like, plus tapas and bigger Spanish plates. Nova Scotia bottles on the wine list are few but fine, including the famous Benjamin Bridge Brut, one of the region's signature sparkling offerings.
1673 Barrington Street, 902-407-5260, highwaymanhfx.com
A tiny wine bar done up in blond wood with a tantalizingly visible cellar. Italy dominates the wine list, but a couple of local bottles are always listed, perhaps from Rafuse Wine Company, an experimental offshoot of Blomidon. There are bar snacks and a few daily dishes from the kitchen.
1475 Lower Water Street, littleoakbar.caObladee
It's usually possible to try at least one Tidal Bay wine at this long, casual bar downtown, which also holds tastings for new local releases. Offerings lean toward natural fermented and biodynamic stuff, including Nova Scotia producers such as Luckett and Lightfoot & Wolfville. No full meals, but charcuterie plates offer cheese, smoked fish and cured meat selections from around the Atlantic provinces.
1600 Barrington Street, 902-405-4505, obladee.ca